by Yiftah Elazar and Efraim Podoksik
When liberals and libertarians speak of liberty today, they often think of it as ‘negative’, in the sense of being left to our own devices, especially by the government. The distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty was popularised by Isaiah Berlin, the twentieth century British historian of ideas and philosopher, whose 1958 lecture ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ has made it into a staple of late modern political thought.
Berlin portrayed negative liberty as a liberal political ideal, but he was no libertarian in the American sense of minimal government and anti-welfare state. Some of his libertarian followers have taken the argument further. They have advocated the maximisation of negative liberty and the corresponding minimisation of the state. In popular political discourse, the idealisation of negative liberty has produced a belief, famously articulated by United States President Ronald Reagan, that ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’.
Surprisingly, however, when the concept of negative liberty first emerged in early modern political thought, it was not conceived as a political ideal. It was more like an anti-ideal. Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham, the two most important theorists of negative liberty in early modern political thought, both used the negative definition of liberty as a deflationary device, in order to deflate democratic political language.
Hobbes argued that democratic writers were conceptually confused about the meaning of liberty, which led them, in turn, to democratic excess. The Hobbesian definition of liberty as the absence of external impediments was supposed to pour a bucket of cold water on their excessive demands for freedom. Bentham, who popularised the claim that the idea of liberty is ‘negative’, used his negative definition of liberty as an ideological weapon. Writing on the concept of liberty during the American Revolution, he expressed his wish, intended to ‘cut the throat’ of what he believed to be a false and dangerous rhetoric of liberty and rights serving the cause of pro-American ‘democratic fanaticism’. He thought that the pro-American democrats had confused notion of liberty as something ‘positive’ (in the sense of being something real and desirable), and he wanted to rid them of their illusions.
On its road from Bentham to contemporary libertarianism, then, the negative idea of liberty has undergone a curious transformation. It has turned from a deflationary device to a central ideal. How did this happen? This is the historical puzzle that has caught our imagination. We are making the task of addressing it more manageable by revisiting Berlin’s account and fleshing out some of the ideological history underlying it. Two themes in particular, that Berlin’s piece had obscured, deserve examining.
First, the theme of negative liberty and democracy. Negative liberty has served, in different historical moments, as an ideological weapon against radical democracy. But it also points to an important shift in the manner in which the negative conception of liberty has been deployed against radical democracy. Hobbes and Bentham used it as deflationary device against what they saw as the confused demand for excessive freedom from restraint. But from the eighteenth century onwards, Whigs and liberals shifted towards the endorsement of liberty as a moderate liberal ideal, which must be protected from democratic despotism or, in a later phrasing, from ‘totalitarian democracy’.
Second, the late and contingent association of the liberal conception of liberty with the idea of negativity. The liberal tradition was slow to adopt the classical utilitarian argument that the idea of liberty is ‘negative’. It is only towards the mid-twentieth century that several historical contingencies—the disentanglement of liberty from democracy, the rise of ‘positive’ liberty and its association with totalitarianism, and what we describe as ‘the fashion of negativity’ in the twentieth-century interwar years—combined to create ‘negative liberty’ as a central liberal ideal.
Let’s take this a bit more slowly. One way of tracing the history of the negative idea of liberty is to keep our eye on a tradition of Whig and liberal political thought that advocated individual liberty as a moderate ideal. Prior to this tradition, demands for liberty were often associated with radical democratic politics. But in the work of Montesquieu, and in the debates that took place in the context of the American Revolution, liberty was disengaged from democracy and associated with moderation.
The French Revolution exerted crucial influence on the development of an antagonism between individual liberty and democracy. The peculiar circumstance that the Jacobins employed the slogans of liberty while conducting a campaign of systematic violence gave birth to a discourse that placed liberty squarely at the centre of the political map, threatened by both the political left and right. Thus emerged nineteenth-century French liberalism as the centrist ideology of the post-Revolutionary era.
The historical divorce of liberty from radical democratic politics and its transformation into a liberal ideal reached its apex in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. If previously many radical currents felt themselves generally at ease with the promotion of ‘bourgeois’ freedoms, now under the influence of the Soviet regime the very idea of these freedoms became more and more suspect. This allowed the critics of the leftist regimes to forge the notion of totalitarian democracy and identify it with the revolutionary left. This term—‘totalitarian democracy’—was thus adopted by centrist liberals to describe regimes emerging out of the radical democratic rhetoric of the Bolsheviks. The historical divorce of liberty from radical politics was completed. Liberty was now firmly situated in the sphere of non-revolutionary bourgeois politics.
This schematic account clarifies the historical context for the tendency of Cold War liberals like Berlin to depict liberty as an ideal that faces hostility both from the radical left and from the reactionary right, depicting both extremes as versions of totalitarianism. But it does not explain how the supposed clash between Western democracy and totalitarianism came to be perceived in terms of an opposition between negative and positive liberty.
To understand that part, we looked, first, to the legacy of German Idealist philosophy and its relation to the twentieth-century debates on totalitarianism. It is in Kant and Hegel that we find the idea of ‘positive’ liberty as a conceptually valid and normatively superior idea of freedom. This new understanding of liberty greatly influenced the British Idealists, such as T.H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet, who brought the dialectic of negative and positive liberty into the British philosophical scene.
In the work of some of the younger theorists of new liberalism, such as J.A. Hobson and L.T. Hobhouse, the idea of positive liberty was used in order assign the state the task of removing via social reforms obstacles to the mutual cooperation of harmonious individuals, thus liberating rather than suppressing the spontaneous energies of individuals. But in the work of German romantics such as Adam Müller, liberty was taken to contain a strong conservative element. It espoused the ideal of devotion to a national collective and advocated an increased role of the state in the life of the society and culture.
When this German ‘conservative’ tradition, as Karl Mannheim described it, was supplanted by a movement of conservative revolution, and, in turn, by Nazi totalitarianism, its ‘qualitative’ or ‘ethical’ conception of liberty was coloured in a much more sinister light. Liberal critics such as Karl Popper accused German advocates of positive liberty of substituting the true meaning of liberty with its exact opposite. At the same time, liberal critics began to blur differences between the anti-liberal right and left, so that qualitative liberty began to be ascribed to both. Thinkers such as Rousseau and Marx, whose radical and emancipationist credentials had formerly been beyond doubt, were now associated with the reactionary rejection of liberty.
The critique of positive liberty opened the possibility of a complementary movement: the transformation of negative liberty into a positive ideal. But to complete this latter part of the story, we need one more component, which we have described as ‘the fashion of negativity’.
Philosophically, the interwar years were the period in which the logical positivists and the British realists successfully demolished the influence of philosophical Idealism, and advocated, instead, sceptical modesty. Culturally, the worldview of the post-World War I generation was marked by anxiety, alarm, and even despair. ‘Negative’ carried a tone of sophistication and superiority over pre-War naïveté. In this context, to prefer ‘negative’ over ‘positive’, even while admitting the philosophical power of the ‘positive’, would not appear as rhetorically self-defeating. On the contrary, opponents of ‘negative liberty’ were faulted for sinning against a commonsensical, modest idea of liberty.
This brief account suggests that the tortuous history of negative liberty has led not only to its transformation into a central liberal ideal, but also to an ironic reversal of its original purpose. Hobbes and Bentham defined liberty in negative terms not in order to turn it into an object of ideological worship. On the contrary, they wanted to diffuse the passions aroused by the language of liberty. Ironically, shifting ideological contexts have turned this act of rhetorical diffusion into a magnet for new political passions.
 On this, see Yiftah Elazar, ‘Liberty as a Caricature: Bentham’s Antidote to Republicanism’, Journal of the History of Ideas 76(3) (2015), 417–39.
by Fernando Lizárraga
When pursuing the clarification of socialism’s core concepts, according to the methodology advocated by Michael Freeden for the study of political ideologies, equality stands out as one of the undisputed ideas on that complex, variegated, and often quarrelling tradition. The other key concepts or conceptual themes that form the kernel of socialism are, according to Freeden, “the constitutive nature of the human relationship, human welfare as a desirable objective, human nature as active, … and history as the arena of (ultimately) beneficial change”. The method leading to this list involves a particular understanding of political ideologies which differs from the usual approach taken by political theory or political philosophy. It requires a thorough study into the main currents of socialism—not only of the Marxist version—and the specification of the relevant concepts through a process of decontestation. The research aimed at specifying those core concepts is also necessary when it comes to depicting the ideas that comprise the adjacencies and periphery of the socialist ideology. There is a particular difficulty that arises when looking into socialism’s morphology, namely, the fact that socialism is both a critique of capitalist society and also a project of a society yet to be brought about: “unlike conservatism, or even mainstream forms of liberalism, socialism is peculiarly prone to a dual temporal existence. It is centrally founded on a critique of the present, yet significantly projected onto a future of which there is as yet little empirical evidence”. This second aspect demands a “leap of faith and imagination”—to use Freeden’s expression. By and large, the self-awareness of socialism—as an ideology containing at the same time a dominant scientific side and a subordinate utopian (normative) dimension—faded away in the face of different dogmatisms promoted by socialist states. But with the collapse of the socialist bloc, there emerged a need for a revision and updating of key elements of the tradition.
Recent scholarship about socialism has largely benefited from the impact of John Rawls’s liberal egalitarianism on several fields of the social sciences and the humanities. After a reckoning of the ethical deficit caused by an extended belief in the scientific prowess of Marxism, a good number of socialist thinkers and activists admitted the need for a normative turn. This is not to deny, of course, the existence of a deep-seated ethical current in Socialism, as it is evident in the works of Eduard Bernstein, R. H. Tawney, G. D. H. Cole, amongst others, but only to highlight the fact that, because of the mainly Marxist anti-moralism, normative work was demeaned and considered powerless in the face of the anticipatory prodigies of historical materialism. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Theory of Justice, and the shockwaves of Rawlsianism are still highly influential. Discussion of the core concepts of socialism, from a normative perspective, have gained a promising place within academia and also within grassroots organisations. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, Alex Callinicos, in his Anti-capitalist Manifesto, advocated a specific form or socialist democracy that embodies four key values of an anti-systemic program: justice, efficiency, democracy, and sustainability, where justice embraces ideals such as liberty, equality, and solidarity. A recent entry on “Socialism” by Pablo Gilabert and Martin O’Neill for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy singles out equality, democracy, individual freedom, self-realisation, and community or solidarity as paramount values of this tradition. As we can see in these two examples, together with Freeden’s construal, the proposed lists of core concepts do not fully match with each other but have one striking coincidence: equality.
This quick exercise seems to support Norberto Bobbio’s famous statement about equality being the Pole Star of the left, as opposed to the anti-egalitarian right. More important, though, is the acknowledgement that values matter to socialism and Marxism in particular, and that it was a shortcoming to eschew any talk of ethical principles, fearfully avoiding a collapse into what Marx and Engels described as petty utopianism. One must only be thankful that this anti-utopianism was not understood as an outright rejection of utopia altogether. So, in defiance of Marx and Engels’s strictures against moral theory, important varieties of moral thinking emerged within the socialist purview, and a strain of ethical socialism came around in the second half of the nineteenth century, paving the way for the post-Rawlsian normative turn. Although the name of Ethical Socialism normally refers to a group of thinkers and activists of the late 1800s in the United Kingdom, it had outstanding representatives in other parts of the world. William Jupp, John Trevor, Thomas Davidson, and Edward Carpenter were key representatives of British ethical socialism. The last two are of particular importance since they were deeply influenced by American Romanticism and immanentism, especially by the works of Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In the United States, a provincial writer destined to become an almost involuntary political protagonist of the Gilded Age, Edward Bellamy, can be counted as one of the few who, despite the widespread dismissal of utopias, decidedly resorted to this genre—inherent to socialist critique and history—to carry out a double task: to cast a harsh indictment on capitalism as a predatory and unjust system, and to advance a vernacular conception of egalitarianism, which was the most cunning way to bring socialism and Marxist themes to the American public. He was also under the influence of American immanentism, transcendentalism, and the experiences of intentional utopian communities such as the famous Fourierist Brook Farm in Massachusetts. Bellamy’s ideas had a profound impact on the organised labor movement, especially among the Knights of Labor. Eugene Debs, founder of the Socialist Party in the United States, revealed that he became a socialist thanks to Bellamy and even met with the writer in his last days. Daniel De Leon, too, is said to have started his revolutionary career under “Bellamy’s inspiration”; and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the leading feminist activist and writer, was also a prominent member of the Bellamyist movement. John Dewey famously wrote that Bellamy was “A Great American Prophet”, and remarked that “what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to the anti-slavery movement, Bellamy’s book may well be to the shaping of popular opinion for a new social order”. In short, and in keeping with the morphological approach, I find it plausible to hold that Edward Bellamy’s condemnation of capitalism and the account of the alternative egalitarian society he advocated are founded one a thick idea of equality which, at the same time, involves an outright rejection of the principle of self-ownership. This last rejection, I also sustain, must be either counted as a component of equality as a core idea of socialism or as an adjacent but necessary concept that contributes to making sense of the kind of egalitarianism espoused by Bellamy and, to a large degree, by contemporary egalitarian socialists.
It must be noted that the principle of self-ownership, first conceived by John Locke, constitutes the founding tenet of contemporary libertarianism. In its most usual rendition, the principle says that individuals have over themselves the same kind of rights that a master has over a chattel slave and, by implication, those who enjoy self-ownership cannot, as a matter of right, be forced to help others through personal service or any other mandatory scheme of redistribution. Bellamy’s opposition to self-ownership must be understood in the context of his life-long advocacy for egalitarianism, as it is conveyed in his most famous utopian novels: Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), and Equality (1897). Such opposition—as I will explain—was founded on the idea of the common ancestry of humankind, on the belief that each person has ha debt to society and past generations; and most importantly, on the notion that it is “fraudulent” to believe that individuals deserve and fully own their natural and social endowments and owe nothing to each other. Looking Backward was one of the most significant literary works in the late 1800s in the United States. It sold millions of copies in a few years and was translated into several languages. The plot, as it normally happens in utopias, is a setting for the development of theoretical propositions. Bellamy uses a time-travelling scheme in which the main character falls into mesmerised sleep in 1887 only to wake up 113 later in his home city, Boston, which in the Year 2000 is part of a perfectly egalitarian society. Julian West, the protagonist, learns about the institutions and ethos of the new world in dialogue with his host, Dr Leete, a retired physician, and his daughter Edith. The sequel of Looking Backward, Equality, is a lengthier description of this new society. Bellamy gained almost immediate international recognition and country-wide acclaim, to the point that he became a keynote speaker for many associations, wrote extensively in his own newspaper, The New Nation, and, eventually, the Nationalist Party was created to advance Bellamy’s ideas. Nationalism, it must be said, was the name Bellamy adopted for his proposal, in an attempt to avoid the word socialism which was associated with violence and social unrest in the wake of the Haymarket Massacre and the mass strikes of the 1870s.
An in-depth exploration into Bellamy’s rejection of self-ownership reveals that such a stance is an integral part of his particular form of radical egalitarianism. The writer from Chicopee Falls (Massachusetts) thought that some of the dominant currents of socialism of his time were not radical enough as to how far they were prepared to push in the direction of equality. He thought that Fabians were too attached to the mechanism of retribution according to contribution, whereas Marxists allowed personal assets to have undue influence on distributive matters. These critiques of other varieties of socialism were the basis of his own understanding of equality. Bellamy considered equality to be the only relevant moral relationship between persons. From this uncompromising stance, he mounted a full criticism of the notion of self-ownership and propounded a strong egalitarian principle: “From each, equally; to each equally”. The institutional arrangements of the utopian society that Dr Leete presents to Julian West are carefully designed and crafted to meet this extremely high standard, without giving in to the annulment of singularity or individual tastes.
It is well known that William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890) is a direct response to Bellamy’s vision, from an anarchistic and pastoral perspective, as opposed to the industrialist and somewhat highly regulated Bellamian society. Morris wrote a critical review in which he remarked that Looking Forward should be “considered seriously” but not taken as a “socialist Bible”. He thought that Bellamy only wanted to get rid of the ills of modern life, without changing that life altogether. He described the utopian system as State Communism, criticised its severe discipline, its industrialism, the major role of great cities, and the limited conception of work as productive activity dissociated from pleasure and creativity. But the core of Morris’s critique was aimed at Bellamy’s peaceful “economical semi-fatalism” that lead to the egalitarian society instead of a conscious struggle for a “free and equal life”.
Even though Bellamy does not reply to Morris’s review, many of these objections seem to have shaped the more nuanced portrayal of the utopian society in Equality and other writings. At the same time, he comes up with a more straightforward rebuttal of self-ownership. So, when writing in The New Nation, he contends that it would be a “fraudulent” principle that which “would assume that an individual owns himself and has a valid title to the full usufruct of his powers without incumbrance or obligation on account of his debt to the past and his duties toward the social organism of which he is a part”. At the same time, alongside a handful of acute arguments against increasing social inequalities and an outright indictment of monopoly capitalism, Bellamy pulls off a brilliant case against the entailment of the principle of self-ownership which forbids someone from lending assistance to others unless it is done by a consented interpersonal contract. In Equality, he contends that under capitalism it is accepted that “everyone is entitled to … the result of his abilities” and that this is plainly wrong because “they would naturally acquire advantages over others in wealth seeking as in other ways”. Since he thought that abilities and the capacity for effort were due to the mere chance of birth, Bellamy ruled out the claim that the better endowed had a rightful claim over the advantages they could muster by using those undeserved talents. Therefore, it was the mission of social institutions to keep these inequalities from arising. It is easy to see that Bellamy was advancing similar arguments to those that, in the early 1970s, John Rawls used to build his monumental theory of justice as fairness.
If Rawls springs up in this account of Bellamy’s thought, it is because, in my view, they represent a deep-seated egalitarian trend both in American political thought and, more importantly, in the socialist tradition. The egalitarianism of Bellamy and Rawls, as noted before, is part of a rich ethical tradition that overcame the staunch anti-moralism of the more orthodox Marxist versions of socialism. Rawls spent two years in Oxford, at a time when G. D. H. Cole, who thought of Bellamy as a mere “populariser of other men’s ideas”, was teaching about utopian socialism; when the Labour Party was divided between friends and adversaries of public ownership; and when Tawney’s new edition of Equality rekindled the debate over and against equality of opportunity, as he advocated a kind of relational egalitarianism that despised the crude distributive view marked by “details of the countinghouse”. Without openly calling themselves socialists, both Rawls and Bellamy were no foes of socialism. On the contrary, Bellamy was convinced that his egalitarian model was even more radical than any socialist program of his time, and Rawls repeatedly emphasised that his theory of justice as fairness can be realised under a system of liberal or democratic socialism. Rawls believed “that the choice between a private-property economy and socialism is left open; from the standpoint of the theory of justice alone, various basic structures would appear to satisfy its principles”. Moreover, after dismissing laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, and state socialism as incompatible with his principles of justice as fairness, he asserted that “property-owning democracy and liberal socialism [in] their ideal descriptions include arrangements designed to satisfy the two principles of justice”.
In Bellamy and Rawls we can see proof of that "dual temporal existence" of Socialism identified by Freeden. As already mentioned, socialism encompasses both a critique of the present and a projection into the future. Bellamy chose the utopian genre to accomplish both tasks; Rawls, in the same spirit, called his otherwise unadorned and formal theory a “realistic utopia”. Above all, both political thinkers were adamant in rejecting self-ownership as part and parcel of their egalitarian views. It should come as no surprise that the first systematic challenge to Rawls was launched from within the liberal tradition, in the guise of the libertarian theory of Robert Nozick, whose endorsement of self-ownership leads to a form of rugged anti-egalitarianism. To sum up: I understand that self-ownership has no place in a radical egalitarian version of socialism and that a good deal of theoretical work needs to be done in order to refine our understanding of the precise place of this rejection in a morphology of the socialist political ideology.
 M. Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory. A Conceptual Approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 425-426.
 Ibid., pp. 417-418.
 Ibid., p. 418.
 J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Revised Edition (Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. First published, 1971.)
 A. Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press), pp. 107-108.
 P. Gilabert and M. O’Neill, “Socialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/socialism/>.
 M. Bevir, The Making of British Socialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 220-227.
 F. Rosemont, ‘Bellamy’s Radicalism Reclaimed’, in Daphne Patai (Ed.) Looking Backward 1988-1888. Essays on Edward Bellamy (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), p. 162.
 Ibid., p. 168.
 Ibid., p. 176.
 J. Dewey, ‘A Great American Prophet’, in Boydston, Jo Ann et. al (eds.) John Dewey. The Later Works 1925-1934. Volume 9: 1033-1934 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), p. 106. [First published in Common Sense 3 (April 1934), pp. 6-7).
 E. Bellamy, Looking Backward. 2000-1887 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
 E. Bellamy, Equality (New York: Appleton, 1897).
 E. Bellamy, Talks on Nationalism (Chicago, IL: The Peerage Press, 1938), p. 25.
 Morris, W., News From Nowhere and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 2004), pp. 353-357.
 E. Bellamy, Talks on Nationalism, op. cit., p. 27.
 E. Bellamy, Equality, op. cit., p. 107.
 K. Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice. Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 18-24.
 J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 228.
 J. Rawls, Justice as Fairness. A Restatement (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 138.